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Innovating Jewish Community

Our religious communities should never fall into the pattern depicted above. And they do not have to do so…

When the author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes complains ein chadash tachat hashamayim – there is nothing new under the sun, he seems to express a disappointment, even frustration, perhaps with the stagnant routine into which his life descended. His insight stands in direct opposition to another strand of the Jewish experience, namely the search for chiddush, for the innovative idea. As the world changes, as our lives are transformed by these realities, we seek new answers and new connections with community and with divinity. Enter any Beit Midrash (Jewish study hall) around the world and you will find people searching the ancient words for a chiddush, new insight, to make life feel alive and meaningful.

Our synagogue, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) – so energized and flexible – is a light for so many people in significant measure because of our commitment to remain vibrant and innovative. We eschew what has been described as Ecclesiastes’ cynicism. We embrace constant transformation, insisting that like the Israelites who left Egypt but retained a slave mentality, we will not become enslaved to the “way we have always done things.” We demand of ourselves petucha, openness, and self-reflection that looks at who we are and constantly strives to refresh and rejuvenate. Our cantor keeps abreast of the newest trends in Jewish music and melds old melodies with new harmonies to keep us humming a praise-song to the Holy One. Our rabbi attends seminars in person and online to keep reflecting, evaluating and refreshing our community. Our graduate student interns bring fresh perspectives from their teachers, the greatest thinkers of our generation. And our leadership and project chairs – committed to serving in a position no more than two years – seek out the energy and enthusiasm of all our members – veteran and new – to deepen the way our Or Ami community touches lives. This is how it should be.

Toward the end of his life, Ecclesiastes looked out at the world and resigned himself to routine. Or Ami looks out and sees opportunity and possibility, new ways to connect Jewish families to the Holy One, Torah, Israel and each other. That is why I am constantly energized by Or Ami and why Or Ami has a stellar reputation locally and nationally.

One comment

  1. Yes there's no doubt Ecclesiastes expresses frustration as he looks back upon his life, his experiences, and his observations. Life is often "absurd," (a better translation of "hevel"). And he tries to make sense of life.

    But to respond to your post: "Nothing new under the sun," can mean that life's TYPES of events recur: birth, death, suffering, loss, joy. Archetypal events. That's what's interesting about Ecclesiastes' (Qohelet's) "Catalogue of Times," Eccl 3:1-8. It begins with the famous, "A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven." But "season" and "time" are two different words in Hebrew: "z'man" and "ayt" are two different kinds of times. Z'man implies an appointed time, whether periodic or unique. Ayt implies occasion, or a set of circumstances (which repeat, like loosing and finding,) or are unique (like being born or dying). Ayt is the word used over and over again from 3:2-3:8. For example: "A time for being born and a time for dying…A time for seeking and a time for losing….A time for war and a time for peace." So, it's kind of like Ecclesiastes is saying,"…there is a time that's right for being born, and a time that's right for dying; a time that's right for war, etc. Not that specific events are predetermined (as in, an exact time for war, as if it was already decided by God).

    And note how the passage ends, with Eccl 3:12-13, "Thus I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime; also, that whenever a man does eat and drink and get enjoyment out of all his work, it is a gift of God."

    "…[D]o what is good…it is a gift of God."

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